Old School Review: The Dark Is Rising Sequence (Over Sea, Under Stone, The Dark Is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, Silver on the Tree)

By Susan Cooper [LibraryThing]

On his 11th birthday, Will Stanton learns that he not merely human; he is the last of the immortal Old Ones, destined to protect the world from those that would destroy it. Since time immemorial there has been a constant struggle between the forces of the Light and those of the Dark. Now the Dark is rising, gathering for a final push, and the chances of stopping it for once and for all rest with a small group of children: Will, youngest of the Old Ones; Simon, Jane, and Barney Drew, powerless but clever and resourceful; and Bran Davies the Raven Boy, with a secret magical heritage of his own.

I originally meant to read this entire series before the movie came out, then do a sort of comparative review of the two. In 2007. Oh well, the best laid plans, right?

I really liked Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book in the sequence, which was about the three Drew siblings searching a tiny island in Cornwall for the Holy Grail, with some guidance from their Great-Uncle Merriman. I love books about plucky British children on holiday, and books about working out magical puzzles by following clues, and books about Arthurian legend, and this had all of that in spades.

The problems arose in the second book, when Will, the protagonist for the rest of the series (well, he splits point-of-view chapters with the Drews in the third and fifth books, but he’s really the main character of the whole sequence), took over. Now, I like Will just fine, as an 11-year-old boy. Unfortunately, glimpses of Will-the-11-year-old-boy are few and far between in the series. We see far more of Will the Old One, who is just kind of boring and pompous and unrelatable. He views humankind with a sort of distant, patronizing fondness; there’s no immediacy between Will and the reader or Will and his friends and family. One book features a mortal whose life is put at stake by Merriman, another Old One, as a sort of failsafe magical device, and when the mortal realizes how willing Merriman was to sacrifice him, he is deeply hurt and winds up betraying Merriman. Will and Merriman show very little understanding or sympathy towards the mortal, or anger or hurt at his betrayal, just vague but tolerant annoyance at the inconvenience of the whole situation. It’s this sort of reaction that makes Will, except for those rare moments when his normal boyish self shines through, a cold and somewhat unlikable narrator.

This isn’t helped by the fact that the series suffers greatly from…it’s not even a case of telling, not showing. Things just are, with no proper transitions or growth on the part of any of the characters. Will is given a book to read early on; the reader doesn’t get to see any of the content, but it instantly teaches Will how to be an Old One and use his powers and basically helps him change instantly from a confused little boy to an untouchable god. It’s incredibly unsatisfying; we never get to see Will learn or grow. To a lesser extent this happens throughout the series: characters suddenly know things for no reason, or instinctively trust or distrust people because they just do. The whole thing reeks of deus ex machina.

In general, the more vague and mystical and grandiose the books got, the harder it was to follow them or relate to them. When Cooper kept the books on a more human level, they were far more compelling. This is why the Drews are more successful characters than Will; it also applies to Bran, the troubled Welsh boy of mysterious parentage who is introduced in the fourth book. The Drews and Bran can be confused, or scared, or petty, and it’s their moments of all-too-human peevishness that make them interesting and likable.

All that said, the books are enjoyable. The prose is absolutely lovely, some of the best I’ve read since we started this blog. The passages describing Cornwall and Wales in particular are like poetry. The mythology is really well-done, although only Arthurian in the broadest sense. And the climaxes are all exciting and high-stakes. So it wasn’t like I didn’t like the books. Just, you know. Will. (Sometimes.)

In light of that, and in light of the fact that these are classics, and a lot of the problems with the books have only become annoying tropes years after The Dark Is Rising helped blaze the trail for modern kids’ epic fantasy, the sequence gets four cupcakes. Not bad!


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